THERE – Theory and Empiricism of Religious Evolution: Foundation of a Research Program

5.2. Semiotic In-Formation of Communication Theory

As set out in the initial theses in the second chapter of this paper, communication is a selection process consisting of the parts utterance, information, and understanding. This triadic process can be modeled using semiotics. (11) Communication is based on the activation of sign processes, and semiosis provides the elementary syntax of communication. “We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organized”(Chandler 2007, 11). According to Peirce’s theory of categories, semiosis always consists of firstness (abstract quality), secondness (relations), and thirdness (mediating representation):

  • The category of firstness encompasses everything concerning what it is and how it is, because it is so without regard to anything other than itself. Firstness refers to what is present in its quality within the spectrum of rules and varying application, possibility, and reality. “Firstness in its purest form, as a complement to secondness and thirdness, is reflexive, symmetrical, nontransitive, and self-contained. As such, the most that can be said of it is that it is as it is(Merrell 1997, 167). An example of firstness is the quality of blueness.
  • The category of secondness includes everything that is and how it is, because of its connection with one or more second others. “Secondness requires the existence of some other accompanied by dyadic relations of action-reaction, cause-effect, sequence-consequence, and statement-counterstatement: it entails ‘What Is ↔ Is Not’, according to classical logical principles. [...] Secondary marks the initiation of transitivity, asymmetry, non-reflexivity, and disequilibrium, and it at least gives a glimpse of the generation of time”(Merrell 1997, 167). Secondness refers to what has been established and connected, to what is factual within the spectrum of identity and difference. An example of secondness is: The blue color of the car has the values 100, 149, 237 on the RGB scale.
  • The category of thirdness covers everything that is and how it is, because it establishes the link between secondness and thirdness. Thirdness refers to a mediating being within the spectrum of facticity and contingency. “Thirdness, taking its cue from Secondness, is characterized by full-blown transitivity, radical asymmetry, temporality […]. Entailing the incessant push toward generality, or regularity, Thirdness embodies the effort—however futile—to bring processes to completion, to arrive once and for all at the plenitude of things” (Merrell 1997, 167). An example of thirdness is: Peter agreed with Mary’s statement that the blue of the sky is at its most beautiful in Tuscany.

Three different sign aspects correspond to the three categories:

  • The representamen (R) (or sign vehicle; Morris 1938, 3) corresponds to firstness.
  • The object (O) (or designatum, Morris 1938, 3) corresponds to secondness.
  • The interpretant (I) corresponds to thirdness.

It should be noted, however, that “the terms interpretant, sign, and object are a triad whose definitions are circular. Each of the three is defined in terms of the other two” (Savan 1988, 43). Therefore, Peirce regards semiosis as “an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs” (Peirce 1994, CP 5.484). Moreover, he emphasizes the permanent referential character of signs: The meaning of a sign “is, in its primary acceptation, the translation of a sign into another system of signs”(Peirce 1994, CP 4.127; see also CP 4.132). The three categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, and the corresponding sign aspects, always indicate to each other in semiosis and never have an independent existence. The triadic structure of the sign can be derived from this: “a sign stands for an object in some respect to some interpretant”(Parmentier 1994, 16). The Peircian sign model is, therefore, to be interpreted as a “relation of relations”(Bense 1975, 67; Burch 1997). (12) However, relations can only exist if differences are laid out in advance. That is why the Peircean sign model is also to be interpreted as a difference of differences—according to Gregory Bateson's understanding of information as “a difference which makes a difference” (1987, 276.321 et pass.). According to Elisabeth Walther(1979, 113–116), the following relations are to be distinguished (Figure 5):

  • signification relation: representamen R ⇒ sign object O
  • meaning relation: sign object O ⇒ interpretant I
  • pragmatic or applicative relation: interpretant I ⇒ representamen R

The interpretant is a constitutive sign component; it mediates the relationship between the sign and the sign object. The interpretant, however, is not a human actor (which is also a sign) or just an act of consciousness. “The interpretant [...] is not only an ‘interpretive consciousness which is a sign’ but generally the interpretation, the interpretive field, the realm of the meaning of the sign. The interpretant itself is a sign (which is part of the thinking process) or an experience or a sensation, in other words, it encompasses all that is meant by ‘meaning’ in its widest sense” (Walther 1969, 6). (13)

Charles Morris (1938) introduced the three dimensions of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics into semiotics. “Pragmatic meaning is defined as meaning that is dependent on context, while the semantic value of a sign is the meaning, or notional core, that it has apart from contextual factors”(Mertz 1985, 4), and syntax encodes the meaning. (14) The syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic dimensions are all based on each other in semiosis (Figure 6). The pragmatic dimension controls “the manner in which signs ‘do’ things” (Yelle 2011, 357), whilst semantics refer to the indexical aspect of signs, and syntactics is responsible for the structure of sign correlations.

Figure 6 shows syntactics in the place of the representamen, because it controls the coding of semiosis. Semantics is located at the position of the sign object, because it is responsible for the interplay between self-referential sense (system) and other-referential reference (environment). (15) Pragmatics is to be put in the place of the interpretant because it is responsible for the mediation between syntactics and semantics. The mutual dependence of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics is the precondition for the representational character of the sign (16), but at the same time, it leads to the interplay between semiotic conventionalization and innovation, and thereby to fuzzy semantics (Rieger 2000) (17). This in turn requires, but also allows for, further connections, thereby rendering an open future possible. Religion is based on the interaction between syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics, too. Semantics becomes specifically religious only if it is based on a religious syntax in the sense of a specific religious code. Conversely, the religious syntax is realized in semantics that is determined in religious terms. The reciprocal condition is founded by religious pragmatics, i. e. by relating to a usage context defined in religious terms.

If we apply Peirce’s semiotics to the newer systems theory and to second-order cybernetics as outlined in the chapter on the basics of systems theory (see Figure 1), then the three sign components: representamen, sign object, and interpretant, must be duplicated for an elementary semiotic system to emerge (Figure 7).

The semiotic elementary system identifies itself (i. e. distinguishes itself from its environment) in the following way: A representamen (R2) (firstness), a sign object (O2) (secondness), and an interpretant (I2) (thirdness), acting as a processor, constitute a sign form which incorporates and observes a sign content including a representamen (R1), a sign object (O1) and an interpretant (I1) (as the first processor).

The communicative activation of semiosis occurs through the incorporation of the triadic structured semiosis in the social space. The social space supplements the three semiotic dimensions of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics, by a fourth, i. e. the social dimension, which is, however, itself semiotic and therefore triadic in nature. (18) It comprises social forms ranging from, e. g., schools, lineages, movements, networks, and associations to formal organizations (for the present, see Krech, Schlamelcher, and Hero 2013; Heiser and Ludwig 2014). Modeled on the ideal type ‘organization’, a social form is based on its communication structure, the persons involved in the shape of ascription (formalized: personnel) and its program (ritual and other instructions, patterns of interpretation, dogmas, statutes, etc.) (Luhmann 2000, 9–10) (Figure 8). (19)

The communication structure, which is placed at the semiotic position of the representamen, forms communication in systemic terms. The relationship between the communication system, the mental as well as—via the respective psychic systems—the organic and physical environment, is controlled by the concept “personnel” (or less formal: those persons, who are addressed in a communication process). The personell is located at the semiotic position of the sign object, because here the structural coupling between system and its environment takes place. The program is located at the semiotic position of the interpretant, because it mediates the relationship between communication structure and personnel. In a Roman Catholic service, for example, the liturgy, as part of the church organization, functions as a communication structure. The priests, the ministers, the reader, and the church attendants are the involved personnel, and the Missale Romanum is the program. The social space, in turn, is embedded in the societal space, which is divided up into subsystems such as politics, law, science, economics, health/social services, education, art, and religion. The example of a Roman Catholic service is embedded within the Roman Catholic church as a religious organization, which, in turn, is nested within religion as a societal subsystem.

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